The Direction of a Knife

My first experience with truly professional waiters was in 1995, when I moved to New York City to work at La Grenouille.  La Grenouille is a very special restaurant, the last of the Grandes Dames that defined the restaurant scene in New York after La Pavillion, the great French restaurant which came out of the 1939 New York Worlds Fair.   It was an entirely masculine restaurant, from front to back, aside from some office staff and the coat check “girls”.  The first day I tried out for the job, every waiter stopped by and introduced himself to me, and shook my hand.  It was mind-blowingly civilized, and it remains with me to this day.   Restaurant people spend an inordinate amount of time together at the worst hours, and to have this introduction to service  —  simply treating others well — affected my way of working from then on.   What was interesting is that days before, I had eaten at Restaurant Daniel, the New York Times Four Star Restaurant, and had what is today still the most memorable meal of my life in terms of the food, and some of the rudest service I had ever had.   Restaurants themselves have individualized cultures, and I eventually learned that there was for me a great difference between the two restaurants.

Once, some seventeen years ago, I was interviewing at a restaurant with the Chef de Cuisine.  I spent the day with her, and she was extremely good, but exhausted to the depths of her soul.  She made a comment that has always stayed with me,  “Cooking is a selfless act”.  I think that if one recognizes that cooking is part of the whole service experience, one can say that “Service is a selfless act”.   One must get out of ones own way and be attuned towards  the other.  Kindness, caring and compassion are blended with professionalism, expertise, and putting oneself on another’s agenda.  The balance, however must be to not sacrifice one’s own well being: if you do not take care of yourself, you cannot be present for the other.  I felt her exhaustion, and something felt wrong.  I did not pursue a job with them based on the weight on her soul.   I was unconscious of it, but I intuitively knew that I could not have that experience.

What I have come to understand is that service is never just about taking care of the customer.  In my role as a chef, I view my job as making sure my employees have the skills and tools to do their job.  If they do not, that is a failure on my part.  I cannot take care of the customer if my employees do not have what they need.   So, I have a responsibility to serve the greater needs of the entire community: the customer, the employees, and my colleagues.  This is a paradigm shift: in pure service, there is no person above the other.  Service is instead a relationship.  We are all in relationship with each other, and in different ways serving the needs of each other.   There is a code to being responsible to each other.  This is why entitlement from a customer can be so frustrating.  Your money does not buy my essence, all that it buys is the transaction.   It is our common humanity, our inherent equality, that is the reason I will be generous of spirit.

I have always found the details of service to be great fun, when one knows them.  There is pleasure in knowing the essential aesthetics of a cultural norm.   My Grandmother Shewmaker would say, “The reason why the rules are there are just so that people will know what to do.”    As a woman with a mental illness, she saw that clearly.  In times of revolution — for instance, the social revolution of the  ’60’s — society is shaken because the norms are thrown out the window.   As a child I would get mad at my little brother when he set the table and didn’t put things the way they were supposed to go: the fork on the left, the knife facing in on the right, the spoon on the outside of it.  It was about meeting expectations.  People find comfort in the familiar, in knowing the rules, in knowing how to behave.  To this day I find myself frustrated when the most basic of rituals are not followed.  At the last place I worked, the silverware was set on the wrong side, and I just bit my tongue.   I remember eating at a restaurant many years ago, and they had put kosher salt in the salt shakers, and you couldn’t get the salt out.  I told the owner, who I happened to work for at another restaurant, and all he did was give a patronizing laugh.  I did not continue to work for him, because that attitude was reflected in all of his working relationships.  Why would you not care about the experience of another?  If a customer’s expectations aren’t reasonably met, there will be conflict within the relationship.    By the same token, if a waiter is clear with the customers at the outset that there might be problems with service, or know how to nip things in the bud appropriately, it is incumbent on the customer to honor that.  These things matter, because at the end of the day, it is about the rituals that we live with, the underlying rules, that give a society  structure.  It does not matter if you are in a primitive tribe, or a sophisticated nation, groups of people have basic and subtle rules that they live by. Even when one is a radical protester, there are social norms: you cannot accomplish things without being attuned to them, even if within their own group they have to design the architecture of their society.  Not having silverware when the food comes out, or not having cream and sugar already there for the coffee, is a rupture because one person is breaking the constructs by which society lives.  This is not petty nor is it what one might dismiss as a First World Problem.  It truly is about being a person in full relationship with others.  I used to tell my people, if a customer asked for mayonnaise, and we did not get it out to them immediately,  they would be sitting with food in front of them getting cold.  It does not work. It creates disharmony.

Awareness of the direction of the knife at a setting says volumes about a persons awareness of others.  This is why it matters.  This is what service is.

Gratitude

I have been in the hospitality industry in one way or another for around 30 years — the first restaurant job I had was at the Elsah Landing Restaurant at Plaza Frontenac in St. Louis in the fall of 1983. My mom would drive me to work…

Since then, I have had some really interesting and life changing positions and education (Pinewoods, followed by the Culinary Institute of America and on to La Grenouille in NYC was most significant — earthy-crunchy folk dance camp food to the great culinary school where I graduated with honors to 3 star classic French, all of which inform what I do now), work that has set the course of my life. But there has always been a sense of needing more, needing the next thing, dissatisfaction, hunger, frustration, desire, longing… I got to three years at Meridian Pint, and for the first time in my life I was not thinking about the next position, the next job, the next person I work for. I was planning, yes, but in the context of the work I had in front of me, the growth of the people who worked for me, and those for whom I worked (and in some cases they were one and the same, if you think about it). I was far from satisfied about where we are — we were constantly reaching, growing, and improving, but to know that I was a part of something that sees that as its mission was a really an amazing experience. While I was far from satisfied, that did not in anyway mean that I was dissatisfied. To the contrary, I was anything but.  At three years, I was ready for what was next, at three and a half, I painfully had to leave.

After the summer, and trying out lunch, for a number of reasons I hit a personal wall.  It was not something I wanted.  I was looking forward to opening the next restaurant, what is now Brookland Pint.  But my internal mechanisms, after three years of going months without taking days off, intense pressures, and my own personal life that wasn’t getting tended to, I crashed.  It was personally devestating, and I spent many months putting myself back into a place where I could put myself out there.

I do want to continue, however, to express my gratitude to those who made my time at Meridian Pint a success.  I am enormously proud of what we accomplished. During the three and a half years that I was at the Pint there were some key players that I would like to publicly acknowledge and thank, because honestly I am still really, really grateful…

In the words of my boss, first and foremost is Cynthia Connolly, who supported me in so many vital ways. We met around the same moment that John Andrade hired me. And John Andrade did indeed hire me. John and I had our challenges, but he trusted me, and gave me the freedom to make the decisions I felt needed to be made.  We worked collaboratively  to make the menu a success.  Of course, I think Sarah Voorheis Andrade is the person who actually put the bug in his ear when I first tried out for the job. I am indebted to both.

All of the people that were at the tasting at Asylum, before I was hired, well, I really appreciate them being there. And the support staff that helped me to pull that off… First impressions are important. They really made that moment happen for me.

The original management team at Meridian Pint, including Drew Swift, Jennifer Marcano and Sam Fitz, with whom I fought, struggled and grew.  I loved working with all of them. Oil and water don’t mix, but you can get a pretty stable emulsion. I do not think I could have asked for a better team.  It was a gift.

Zachary Conway who was one of my first hires, a remarkably creative cook, a great friend and supporter when things were not as rosy.  I hope to collaborate on future projects with him beyond cooking.   He was never my sous in title, but that was what he was before he left. Jose Alvarez my first Sous Chef who is as good a cook as any I have ever worked with anywhere, I hope to one day hire again.   Francisco Javier Ferrufino, my other Sous Chef, who taught me through teaching him. His growth as a cook propeled my own growth as a teacher, and it was with pride that I left the kitchen in his capable hands.   It is a tremendous honor to be a part of another human beings growth. Cruz Dubon had been with me since the first day and is the quiet man who kept our production humming. The rest of our kitchen over three and a half years, all of whom I would mention here, but particularly Abel, Erika, Victor, Melvin, Walter, Pablo, Adali, Isaias, Edwin… There are others…

The front of the house staff, too numerous to mention here (so I will mention a few: Elizabeth, Mike, Jack, Jay, Maria, Justin, Luke, Jason, Devin, Jennie, Ovidio, Nelson, Audrey, Jordan, Mary Carroll, Ben Brown, Stephanie, Elle, Rodricka, Carmen, Taylor and all the rest that had come and gone) but some who grew into management positions, and whose input and friendship I valued: Rachel Fitz, with whom I worked very closely on a daily basis; Ward Eliot, who managed brunch, and like a bunch of us, put in a lot of free labor to get the place open; Zach Meyers, one of the smartest cats I know, who also invested heavily in making it all happen; Timothy Prendergast, the consummate perfectionist… There are those who were  the pillars of our service program, who completely  bought into what we the Pint does, and without their input, professionalism, salesmanship, and belief in that, would not have brought us to where we were when I left.  I remember when the Pint was just unrealized potential, and it was amazing to watch it transfrom.

Kendra, whose graphics work helped define our aesthetic, continues to be a blast to work with, and a really great friend.  If you like the design of my logo and site, she is the one to talk to.

Kevin Reilly was a salesman who I could not have done it without.

Dennis Chadonnet, who I worked closely with since the beginning, even after he sold his company and went to work for someone else.

Christian…. whaaa?

So many producers and farms, but the most exciting was Shannon Varley of Bella Terra Family Farms… Jamie Stachowski, Stanly Fedder, CommonGood City Farm, The Farm at Our House, Robert of Lydia’s Fields, Ned of the Duck Egg (Twin Post Farm)… all great, but Shannon’s Pig and the first Pig Roast… wow!

All the amazing breweries who I had gotten to do beer dinners with… absolutely amazing, so educational, and so much fun….

DC Brau who helped put us on the map (Jeff, Brandon) and all the other DC Breweries that continue to sprout up (3 Stars!)… Stephen Jones from Oliver’s, the finest cask ale in the US… Huge supporter of the vegetarian program here…

Fritz Hahn, who I had the honor to give the Heimlich Maneuver to. Fritz gave us our first review in the Washington Post before we were ready, and yet it was relatively positive… and gave me my first bit of press promotion by writing about a Vegetarian Small plates event (I did the Heimlich Maneuver some months after the write up — no conflict of interest, I swear)… It blew it up! Thanks, man…

Perhaps most importantly: all of the initial investors in Meridian Pint who I shall always count as friends. Thank you for taking the risk in an extremely dubious economy on a venture that was perhaps more of a risk than you knew. As a guy who needed a job, and was waiting on the bench, I have a deep appreciation for the risks that you took.

The Public. Meridian Pint continues to be a  popular restaurant, which I find to be incredible — not that they shouldn’t be, but I was never in the popular scene, and its kind of cool… Once, I had this moment when I was out and about in the neighborhood… “Damn,” I thought “I really want a burger… We need a great burger place in this neighborhood…” and then I realized… “duh, oh yeah…” Of course, the Pint is that and so so so so much more, but I am indebted to the guy who posted on Yelp, who told us we were missing an opportunity. I think he should be happy now. If I ever meet him, I’ll buy him a drink.

So, here’s to all of you who made this chapter of my life happen, who gave me something I never expected or knew what would feel like.  It was a profound experience.

 

Ice Cream

When I was a kid both of my grandfathers cooked. The big thing that my father’s father made was ice cream. He would freeze water in cardboard half gallon milk cartons (Golden Gurnsey which was what my grandmother and he drank, which was richer, supposedly) and then would keep them cold in an old fashioned ice box — literally an icebox. If he didn’t have enough ice there was a machine close to Forest Park — a large, yellow metal contraption — into which you would deposit 50 cents and get a huge block of ice, which made sense, I suppose, if you still had an ice box like he did. This was the ’70’s and ’80’s, so I have a hard time believing that was the case, but maybe I just was blissfully unaware how others were living. I know not. The day before making the ice cream, my grandmother would make the mix, the flavor depending on what fruit was in season. Strawberry or peach was most common. She would make the mix too sweet because “the sweetness freezes out”. It was a simple recipe of milk, coffee cream, as opposed to half and half or heavy cream, which may have been a regional thing, but at any rate it had its own fat percentage, sugar, vanilla, the fruit, and maybe a raw egg or two. They did not make a custard. On the day of, we would chip the ice with an ice pick, and we used either a hand crank or an electric model. I think the hand crank eventually died, or my grandfather got tired of dealing with it. After it was done, we would lick the paddle, which in my opinion is still the best part. Today, when I make ice cream, I make a custard, that is it has eggs and I cook it, strain it, and chill it rapidly. But there is still a connection to my grandfather. It is interesting to me, what he wanted to teach me was Greek, which he could read; it never happened, but he taught me about making something deliberately.   My grandfather stopped hugging me when I was ten, telling me, “You’re too old for that!”  I knew the warmth in his handshake, but of course there was a certain sense of loss and longing.  Being able to be a part of the process, and paying attention to it, was important for both of us.  He spent his life as a lawyer, a Harvard Law graduate who at one point had the opportunity to serve on the Missouri Supreme Court. But that is not what I got from him.

What Drives Me

Management Style: I set the tone of the work place, and am responsible for creating an environment where employees will succeed.  My role is to be responsible to the people I manage: I am there to make sure that they have the tools to do their jobs, and their success or failure falls on my shoulders.  In hiring people, I excel at finding the right position for the person, and vice versa.  I do not believe in shoe-horning a person into a job, but making the fit right for both the individual and the team.  I believe in teams.  I love building teams and witnessing the cohesion of a team develop, growing into an entity unto itself.  I believe that a customer’s positive experience, and hence the businesses profitability, starts with treating the employee first and foremost as a human being who deserves my respect, no matter the position, and investing in them by teaching, providing positive feedback,  listening to suggestions, and being clear in my communication without being condescending or dismissive.  Building a loyal team not only creates a positive work environment but a successful business.  My best work is collaborative, whether it is with my fellow managers, engaging the people who work for me, or discerning the desires of the clientele that I serve.   I love the creative experience of building with others, and I thrive on the nuances of building unique relationships.

Creative Passions:  While I thrive in being successful, having the spotlight, and love the attention that comes with making people happy, I have no desire to intrude on a guest’s experience.  What excites me is knowing that we have taken care of a guest, that we have succeeded in our task.    At my core, I believe my own success comes from the collaborative work experience, and it is something which drives my creativity, whether it be with a purveyor that has something exciting to sell me, a management team member who wants to put together a special event, a customer who has unusual requests, or an employee who wants to learn and stretch themselves.  These become challenges to engage me and excite me.   While I have come up with original ideas, they tend to be less important to me than the act of creating with others.

Culinary Philosophy:  I have one basic question that must be answered before all others:  is it yummy?  After that, I will digress into intellectual arguments for or against what I am serving (i.e.: is it local, seasonal, sustainable, cruelty free, how processed, what kinds of compromises am I making, how can I offset those compromises…).  I believe that Vegetarians mostly have it right, though not entirely.  Our environment is in danger from industrial farming.   Factory farming, mono-culture, lack of biodiversity, genetic engineering, dangerous chemicals,  ad infinitum, does  not produce healthy food.  Food subsidies that reward mono-culture, that do not support small farmers, have created a situation where we will not pay what food is actually worth.  It has screwed with our economy — remember Farm Aid?  The situation literally forces  us to eat something that is substandard and  a new invention, something that was never in the human diet and now creates its own set of problems.  I am a traditionalist in many respects, and I come by it honestly: I learned through exposure at an early age to appreciate traditional, and often conservative, cultures.  True conservatism would not embrace the horrors of what Monsanto is creating.  A set of radical business men co-opt the term…   I love the received wisdom of cuisines passed down: the techniques of cookery, food in season, the rituals of dining, and the joy of celebration.  While in my career I have come up with some original dishes and techniques, I will always be loyal to those who practiced their craft before me.   The experience of cuisine, the rituals of dinning, is central to who we are as human beings.  And in the midst of my critique,  I find that I will make compromises because, well, perhaps a deep fried Twinkie is exceptionally yummy?  Maybe it is worth cruelty for me to experience the lushness of foie gras? Perhaps, before it is extinct, I will have one more opportunity to experience the pop, the salinity, the mouth feel, the oiliness and fishiness of Beluga caviar… I cannot help but be human: a sensualist, a hedonist, a hunter.  The idea of eating something that is completely unnatural is something we look down on, and yet we do every day with guilty(or oblivious) pleasure.   The idea of eating something on the verge of extinction or consuming that which creates unimaginable suffering goes against the mores of our contemporary culture, and we view as  primitive as the peasant and his gavage.   Yet we tolerate the grossest of cruelties in our mass production.  The rituals and traditions of dining rein in our base animal hungers, and give them structure, a frame work to set us apart from “primitives”, simultaneously separating us from the true nature of our food: what it is and where it came from.   I am trusted to make those decisions for the diner, to filter it so that they may eat in good conscience.    Dining itself is a civilized act;  it is my job to harness the rituals and traditions, and thereby showcase our hungers in an acceptable form.  Thorstein Veblen, the late 19th and early 20th century Political Economist who originated the idea of “conspicuous consumption” critiques me through it all.

Pinewoods Dedication

Pinewoods Camp, Inc.  is an educational, non-profit traditional dance and music retreat that has served primarily adults, with family sessions as well, for over eighty years.  I first attended when I was six years old with my brother and mother, and later worked there as a teenager and young adult, moving through the ranks to eventually run the kitchen.  I returned in my late 30s to supervise a new generation of kitchen staff that were working there for some of the same reasons that I had chosen to be there: to dance, sing, and play music.  They are in the process of rebuilding the venerable dining hall and kitchen, and fundraising for it.  A book is being published for the opening.   Twenty Tables of Eight, containing interviews and recipes from the former cooks and chefs at Pinewoods, is being assembled by a woman native to Takoma Park, MD, Sarah Pilzer,  who worked for many years on the Kitchen Crew at Pinewoods.  It will be published later this Spring.  Below is an excerpt from my dedication page.
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Dining, as dance, is a communal activity, with its own set of rules, traditions, and aesthetics. Cooks and chefs are as committed to creating an experience for an audience as any musician or caller. The Pinewoods dining aesthetic is one that many people have contributed to, and is framed by the limits of the space, the tools at hand, the money available, and the campers and their wants. The cooks at Pinewoods work within these confines, and seek to produce food for some 160 people a meal, three times a day, from June into September, making food from scratch — real, honest cooking — during a break from their regular lives, or while they try to figure out what’s next, or so that they can avail themselves of the opportunities to learn that which Camp provides… In the meanwhile, life happens, and for some of us our experience at Pinewoods is defining.

On Team Building

Being hired to work in a kitchen is not  dependent  on ones age, race, or education. Hiring is based on ability, and promotion is based on strengths. I have two sous chefs, both from the same country, but separated by over 30 years in age and the experience of a brutal civil war. Both have earned their place as leaders in my kitchen.

I am late in life running a restaurant kitchen. I was hired at Meridian Pint at the age of 41, and although I have other kitchen management experience, this was my first time opening a restaurant. There was an advantage to doing this at my age: I knew what I wanted.  At 41, it also meant that I had had years of experience working with others.   I am inherently a people person, but that does not mean I am necessarily good at managing others. On this path, I continue to learn my weaknesses, and as I learn them, I am able to develop the tools to deal with them efficiently, turning them into strengths.  I have learned the people skills so necessary to building a strong team, and this is a crucial part of my job.

While it is important to me that I like the people that I hire, it is more important to me that the people I hire work well with others.  I am a manager, no longer a line cook in the thick of things,  and the people who work for me work more closely with each other than with me. I need the input of those that work for me, and in particular, I need the input of the people that I cannot do without. Everyone is replaceable, of course, including myself, but at the end of the day my success is dependent upon the strengths of others.

My kitchen, like most, is staffed with an “underclass”; people who thrive in adversity and intensity. Often they are immigrants, from poverty, a racial minority, or some combination thereof.  Like those who work in other intense fields, emergency services, for instance,  many come with traumatic histories, things that none of us want to live through. I have known my share of war survivors, people who have fled villages of headless bodies. And I have known my share of abuse survivors as well.  Things neither you nor I would want to live through. Because of these experiences,  we in the war zone of the kitchen function well under stress.  We bond in intensity.  This bond is of course what is most crucial to the functioning of a team. The sense of togetherness is what makes for strength.  The lack thereof is what creates a rift. Without the bond, there is no camaraderie, without camaraderie, there is no team work. When the bond does not form it is frustrating,  and the person usually does not last;  when the bond is broken it is a betrayal.  Repair work must happen or we forever part ways.

I work at creating that sense of loyalty to the team. Yes, I want people loyal to me. “I am the guy who hired you, respect me.” However, more importantly, respect the team with whom you work. Bow to peer pressure. Understand that if you have their back, they will have yours. And at the end of the day, understand that the people we all serve, the customer, is truly the task master, and without them, none of us will succeed.  A divided kitchen will fail.

I have a team of men and women who work for me, predominantly Latino, though not entirely, who struggle through their own private holocausts to come to work every day and perform. The work is not easy, it does not pay well, and it is filled with unpredictable, acute stress. The greatest satisfaction I take from this work is not the pretty plates, the tasty food, or the happiness of my customers (you come a close second)… it is baring witness to success in a profoundly human way… I do not measure success by material wealth, but by the growth of an individual. I am proud of the men and women who make it,  who grow in their profession,  and I do not fault those that do not, because, honestly, it really isn’t easy.